Women's History

Women's History IconFrom Specimen of Printing Types from the New England Type Foundry (Boston, 1834). Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

The earliest written record of women’s achievements on Cape Ann dates back almost as far as the arrival of the Dorchester Company in 1623. In 1637, Isabel Babson (ca.1577–1661) arrived from Salem. We know from her testimony against William Browne during the time of the Salem witch trials that she was a midwife.[1] She died in Gloucester with a considerable estate.

Cape Ann’s most outspoken advocate for women’s advancement was Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820), who found a national audience for her writing. The oldest of eight children in the wealthy Sargent household, Judith benefited from her brothers’ education, her father’s erudition, and her family’s large library,[2] but as is hinted at by her inscribed Dictionary she was very much an autodidact. Her landmark essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” (1790) remains her most famous piece of writing. In it she argues for women’s equality on both religious and moral grounds, writing that “our souls are by nature equal to yours; the same breath of God animates, enlivens and invigorates us ...”[3]. Her three-volume collection The Gleaner (1798) established her as a leading intellect on matters political and religious. Her outlook on female education, her favorite subject, is full of hope: “In this enlightened age,” she writes, we are “rapidly” seeing a “more uniform system of information; and the frequently contested question, respecting the intellectual pretensions of the sexes, may one day be discussed on fair and equal ground.”[4] The historian Mary Kelley notes that, as a “staunch Federalist from a prominent New England family, Murray was no egalitarian,” but along with other leading proto-feminists of her day such as Philadelphia’s Susanna Rowson (1762–1824), she “bolster[ed] women’s claims to intellectual equality and moral authority.” [5] The embroidery made by her only child, Julia Maria, and her niece for their aunt Nancy Parsons Sargent (1769–1860) can be read as a symbolic rendering of Murray’s own values. Copied from a reproduction of the painting Cornelia Africanus (1785) by Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807), the needlework depicts the popular story of a learned Roman woman who valued education as a republican virtue.

Though Murray’s home has been an attraction on Gloucester’s Main Street for decades, little of Murray’s vast archive remains here. Murray was a prolific letter writer, but her letter books, discovered in 1984, are now housed at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. After her husband died, Murray went to live with her daughter in Mississippi, and that is how the letter books ended up so far from Gloucester and from Murray’s second home, Boston. By the time she completed her last letter book, in 1818, at the age of sixty-seven, Murray had created twenty volumes and copied approximately 2,500 letters, which Bonnie Hurd Smith, an independent scholar and Murray’s distant relative, is editing for publication.[6]

The stories of the lives of women who resided on Cape Ann can be found in letters, albums, books, and even handwritten newspapers that have survived in the local archives. Friendship albums, which abound in local archives, attest to the ways in which women depended upon and cared for one another. The “affectionately selected” poem that Jane Whipple of Durham, New Hampshire, penned in her friend Amanda Babson’s (1811–1857) album offers one example of how young women “looked to the images of intimate and loving relationships sanctioned in sermons, didactic literature, and fiction and poetry to structure their imaginative worlds and peer relationships.”[7] Babson’s archive offers copious examples of the bonds she and her female peers forged through their participation in civil society, as they were afforded few opportunities to engage in politics.[8]

Amanda BabsonAmanda Babson, unattributed daguerreotype. Cape Ann Museum.

Amanda Babson’s story can stand in for those of a great number of Gloucester women who tended the home fires while their husbands were away at sea. But she is unique for the extent of her literary output, or at least for how much of it remains. Babson’s manuscript newspaper, The Casket, reveals that she and her circle of female friends shared their semipublic writings with one another. The historian Karin Wulf has traced how such manuscript exchanges among women in Philadelphia helped improve women’s skills as readers and writers and therefore played a key role in their education.[9] Formatted like a nineteenth-century periodical, with two columns to a page, The Casket contains religious prose and poetry, reflections on friendship, and, on the last of the four pages, some fun. Perhaps modeled after Samuel Coate Atkinson’s Casket: Gems of Literature Wit & Sentiment (Philadelphia, 1831–1833), Babson’s Casket was “devoted to improvement.” The masthead announces that this collection of jewels was published “Weekly at No 2 School Street, A. Babson, Editor.”

The content of The Casket indicates that its intended audience was Babson’s female contemporaries. She makes reference to her niece Elizabeth Stanwood, her sister-in- law Lucy E. Foster, and many other women in her circle. In every extant issue, Babson includes an “Acrostic Enigma” for her readers to solve. Though we cannot be privy to all of the in-jokes among Babson and her friends, we can detect some of the humor in the advertisement for schoolbooks at “118 Learning Alley” or the notice that “fancy articles,” such as brass and tins, can be purchased at “666 Poverty Place.” One message admonishes her friends who have not provided content for The Casket; Babson writes, “I will say to those girls that do not write for the papers, that they must not expect to have any pieces for theirs when they edit them so that if they do not they will know the reason.”[10] Though we might lament that no copies of any other “girls’” newspapers seem to have survived, we can read Babson’s The Casket as evidence that women participated in civil society in ways that deviated at times from the predominantly masculine public sphere of publishing.[11]

One of the first books printed in the United States with moving parts, The American Toilet (1827), playfully tied the notion of women as keepers of virtue to that of women as consumers in the burgeoning marketplace of the early nineteenth century. An early example of lithographic book production, the small volume consists of twenty leaves; each page has an image of a domestic, often personal, object incorporating a movable flap which, when lifted, reveals the name of an associated virtue.[12] As we learn from the 1867 edition, the book itself was the result of female ingenuity and benevolence: “Many years ago, Miss Hannah and Miss Mary Murray, of New York, ladies of great wealth and culture, designed ‘The toilet.’ They cut pictures from papers and pasted them on the leaves of little blank books, and the descriptions were in their own handwriting. It was originated, and sold, for charitable purposes, and the demand for it was so great, that at length one thousand dollars was realized from the sale of it, and given to the Foreign Missionary Society.”[13] We know from the inscription on the inner front board of the displayed copy that this second edition belonged to Julia Metcalf, but archival digging has yet to turn up any details on who she was.

Women participated in the consumer revolution not just as buyers but also as retailers of goods. Abigail Hooper Trask (1788–1885) distinguished herself as a formidable businesswoman. Renovating what is now called the Trask House in the center of Manchester and in 1822, she ran her own store as a single woman until she married in 1823. In addition to selling imported dry goods, Trask also dispensed rum made from molasses and sugar produced on plantations in the Caribbean and South America. Records show that in one year, the store went through as many as fourteen barrels of rum.[14] Trask outlived her husband by thirty-nine years; she was likely a widow when this photograph was taken. Trask’s access to state-of-the-art photographic technology suggests that she was a woman of some means. It also indicates that, at least at the time of sitting for the photograph, she valued this friendship immensely; why and when her companion’s face was scratched out remain a mystery. Cape Ann’s women’s archives contain many untold stories, but they undoubtedly testify to the importance women placed on female communities of affiliation and affection.


[1].George Francis Dow, ed., Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, vol. 2, 1656–1662 (Salem: Essex Institute, 1912), http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/Essex/vol2/images/essex038.html.

[2] Emily Mace, “Murray, Judith Sargent (1751–1820),” Harvard Square Library (blog), July 28, 2012, http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/biographies/judith-sargent-murray/.

[3] Judith Sargent Murray, “On the Equality of the Sexes,” The Massachusetts Magazine, Or, Monthly Museum Concerning the Literature, History, Politics, Arts, Manners, Amusements of the Age 2 (1790), 134.

[4] Judith Sargent Murray, The Gleaner: A Miscellaneous Production. In Three Volumes (Boston: I. Thomas and E. T. Andrews, 1798), 280.

[5] Mary Kelley, Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, 2006), 198.

[6] “Bonnie Hurd Smith’s Project to Publish Judith Sargent Murray's Letter Books. http://jsmsociety.com/Letter_books.html, accessed December 15, 2017.

[7] Catherine E. Kelly, In the New England Fashion: Reshaping Women’s Lives in the Nineteenth Century (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002), 68.

[8] For a complete discussion of women’s role in civil society, see Kelley, Learning to Stand and Speak.

[9] Karin A. Wulf, Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000), 25–52.

[10] Amanda Babson, ed., The Casket, March 10, 1849.

[11] The term “public sphere” became important in eighteenth-century studies after Jürgen Habermas’s 1962 study of newspaper print culture in England was translated into English: Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989); see also Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983). The idea gained particular currency in early American studies in Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990).

[12] For more on the printing history of The American Toilet, see Jon Carbonell, “Anthony Imbert: New York’s Pioneer Lithographer,” in Prints and Printmakers of New York State, 1825–1940, ed. David Tatham (Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 1986), 24. The first book with movable plates produced in the United States was probably Benjamin Sand, Metamorphosis (ca. 1787). I am indebted to Georgia Barnhill for pointing me to these references.

[13] Hannah Lindley Murray and Mary Murray, The Toilet (Washington, D.C.: William Ballantyne, 1867), frontmatter. Many thanks to Laura Wasowicz, the American Antiquarian Society’s Curator of Children’s Literature, for drawing my attention to this later edition, which is part of the Society’s collections (Record #219549).

[14] Gordon Abbott, Jeffrey’s Creek: A Story of People, Places, and Events in the Town That Came to Be Known as Manchester-by-the-Sea (Manchester-by-the-Sea: Manchester Historical Museum, 2003), 97.

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